The New Nature Writing

July 2008 / Granta, 102

When I used to think of nature writing, or indeed the nature writer, I would picture a certain kind of man, and it would always be a man: bearded, badly dressed, ascetic, misanthropic. He would often be alone on some blasted moor, with a notebook in one hand and binoculars in the other, seeking meaning and purpose through a larger communion with nature: a loner and an outcast. One such man was Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young educated American from a prosperous middle-class family who, in search of authenticity of experience and influenced by the writings of Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau, dropped out from conventional society in the late 1980s to pursue a life of aimless wandering in the wild places of America. McCandless was disgusted by the excesses of our culture and by how in our rapacity and greed and arrogance we had, in his view, sought to separate ourselves from nature, had tried to place ourselves somehow outside or above it, so as to master it. In April 1992 he headed north to Alaska, because, he wrote in a letter, he wanted to ‘walk into the wild’. He ended up starving to death; his decomposed body was found in a long-abandoned bus. He had hoped his encounter with the wilderness of the Alaskan taiga would heal his wounds: instead, they were ripped open.

I first read about McCandless in a 1993 article by Jon Krakauer in Outside magazine. It was at about this time that I also read Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986), a book that fundamentally changed the way I thought about nature and nature writing. For Lopez, writing about the North American Arctic was not an exercise in self-enthronement; he was not, like McCandless, a romantic adventurer and wilderness was not a screen on to which he wanted to project his longings and needs. As a field biologist he was engaged in nothing less than a struggle for exactitude: the struggle to find a language, free from cliché, in which to describe and explain in all its complicated particularity a landscape undergoing irrevocable change. It was a moral enterprise: for Lopez, the wilderness of the Arctic was not a means to an end, a trove of oil and gas for Arctic nations to exploit, but an end in itself. He moved through this landscape with wonder, but also with care.

Lopez’s book was not one of the many found among McCandless’s possessions after his death. Nor is there any record of his having read it. If he had, his veneration of nature and in particular of the Alaskan wilderness may have been tempered by pragmatism, and he may not have lost his life.

Krakauer later expanded his article about McCandless into a book, Into the Wild, which in turn has been adapted into a film. ‘Into the Wild’ would also do as a more general title for much of the work being produced by a new generation of British nature writers, preoccupied by McCandless’s anxieties but balanced by Lopez’s methods. They share a sense that we are devouring our world, that there is simply no longer any natural landscape or ecosystem that is unchanged by humans. But they don’t simply want to walk into the wild, to rhapsodize and commune: they aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect.

Few would doubt that we are living at a time of emergency. The world’s population presently stands at 6.7 billion, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That figure is projected to rise to 8.5 billion by 2030. It is understood now just how quickly the earth is warming, because of the increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases arising from human activity. If the earth continues to warm at its present rate, we know what our fate will be, and yet we seem set on destroying ourselves. Meanwhile, we are experiencing a fundamental shift in power away from the West; the emergence of China, India and Brazil, with their new wealth and aspirational middle classes, is putting an intolerable strain on the world’s finite resources. As I write the price of oil has reached $128 a barrel. It has never been higher. One need not be a pessimist to predict some kind of Malthusian denouement to the human story if we are unable or unwilling to alter our ways of being: scarcity wars, famine, large-scale environmental degradation.

When we began to commission articles for this issue we were interested less in what might be called old nature writing – by which I mean the lyrical pastoral tradition of the romantic wanderer – than in writers who approached their subject in heterodox and experimental ways. We also wanted the contributions to be voice-driven, narratives told in the first person, for the writer to be present in the story, if sometimes only bashfully. The best new nature writing is also an experiment in forms: the field report, the essay, the memoir, the travelogue. If travel writing can often seem like a debased and exhausted genre, nature writing is its opposite: something urgent, vital and alert to the defining particulars of our times.

The writers collected here are all on some kind of journey of discovery, as the best travel writers were, but at a time when so many of us are concerned about the size of our carbon footprint, they have no need to travel to the other side of the world to understand more about themselves and their relation to the world they inhabit. In this sense, many of the stories in this issue are studies in the local or the parochial: they are about the discovery of exoticism in the familiar, the extraordinary in the ordinary. They are about new ways of seeing. Many of the pieces can also be read as elegies: we know how our world is changing and what is being lost and yet we are powerless to prevent the change.

One of my favourite books about nature is not by a conventional nature writer at all: it is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The narrator is a young German conscript who spends several harrowing years in the trenches. Towards the end we encounter him sitting alone in a garden during two weeks away from the ceaseless slaughter: ‘I have swallowed a bit of gas,’ he confides. It is autumn 1918 and everyone ‘talks of peace and armistice’. The garden is quiet, and he sits all day long in the sunshine, ‘the trees show gay and golden, the berries of the rowan stand red among the leaves, country roads run white out to the sky.’

The years of fighting, of being surrounded by so much dirt, suffering and cruelty, have left the young man with an awareness of how disconnected he has become from the natural non-human world and from his fellow species. On the final page, shortly after he has returned to the front and with the end of the war so near, he is killed on a day of unusual quiet and stillness. In the film of the novel this last scene is reimagined so that a sniper shoots the young man just as he leans out of the trench, risking his life, to touch a butterfly that has landed nearby, beyond reach. The beauty and freedom of the butterfly is contrasted with the ugliness of war and the captivity of the soldier in his trench. War is an unnatural violation; there is the human world, the novel seems to be saying, and there is the natural world, and there is no longer any connecting bridge between them.

I was reminded of the final scene of the film of All Quiet on the Western Front – of a young man at war losing his life as he reaches for a butterfly – when I spoke to Lydia Peelle after reading her story ‘Phantom Pain’. Peelle is a writer new to Granta and ‘Phantom Pain’ is the only work of fiction in this issue. ‘The new nature writing,’ she told me, ‘rather than being pastoral or descriptive or simply a natural history essay, has got to be couched in stories – whether fiction or non-fiction – where we as humans are present. Not only as observers, but as intrinsic elements. I feel this is important, because we’ve got to reconnect ourselves to our environment and fellow species in every way we can, every chance we have. In my thinking, it is the tradition of the false notion of separation that has caused us so many problems and led to so much environmental degradation. I believe that it is our great challenge in the twenty-first century to remake the connection. I think our lives depend on it.’

This issue of Granta is our modest attempt to contribute towards that long journey of reconnection. At present, the human animal lives in but often strives to be apart from nature. None of us wishes to imagine what might come after nature, when we are gone.